Sermon for Advent 3 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I was gratified last Sunday when Bishop Williams in his sermon speculated that your rector was more of a John the Baptist figure (pointing away from himself and to the Lord) rather than a false Messiah. I suspect that if I were the latter I’d have a larger bank account and a nicer car and maybe even a private jet like some of those famous–or, rather, infamous–prosperity preachers.

That said, John the Baptist was not without his blind spots, as suggested by the question he sends those serving him in prison to ask. “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” It’s an odd question for John the Baptist to ask, considering that he got his answer eight chapters earlier. At the Jordan River the heavens had opened and the very voice of God confirmed Jesus’ identity: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” John knew that he was unworthy to Baptize the Lord to whom he had been pointing, and had consented only because of the authority of the one who demanded it. So, John the Baptist had seemed to figure out that it was Jesus himself for whom he was the forerunner, so why this question about Jesus’ role in the story so much later? If in the third chapter of Matthew, John seems convinced that Jesus is none other than the Messiah, why would he begin to question this by the eleventh chapter?

It seems to me that the question on John’s lips might not be as strange as it first seems, and this is because of the shape which his expectations must have taken. John’s understanding of the Messiah’s mission would likely have been the same as his contemporaries’- namely, that the Messiah would come and free God’s people, the Jews, from the captivity of an oppressive foreign regime. And now John finds himself quite literally a captive, a prisoner, after the one whom he believed to be the Messiah had already come. Things were supposed to get much better with the advent of the Messiah, but for John and for the others who followed him, things seemed to have gotten much, much worse. We can imagine the tone with which John’s question was asked. He must have been more than a little frustrated. “Are you the Messiah or not?!”

Now two-thousand years later, we know how this ended. The Kingdom which Christ had ushered in was not of the sort expected. It was not a free Israel with a reëstablished monarchy, a renewed corporate worship life centered at the temple, and a Roman Army on the run. For as long as the Jews had their own leaders these leaders would remain Roman puppets, the temple would be utterly destroyed a few decades later, and the Roman Army wouldn’t go anywhere for a very long time. We know that the Kingdom Christ would establish was different from the Kingdom his contemporary compatriots expected- that it would be a Kingdom not of this world, a Kingdom whose citizens were determined not by lineage but by Baptism, whose King could not be seen in some royal court in Jerusalem, but in his marvelous, miraculous appearing wherever Christians are gathered together around his throne, which is the altar. We know that now, but would we have expected it if we were John the Baptist or some other first century Jew who’d been thrown in prison for disturbing the peace? Not likely.

So, John’s apparent lack of faith is understandable. If somebody told us he were here to free us from oppression and we ended up in prison instead, we’d naturally wonder if the man who made that promise really intended to be our Savior after all. We, like John, might become exasperated and ask, “Well, are you the Messiah, or aren’t you?”

That we would probably be in the same boat as John means that the message we get from his qualms is not that we’re a whole lot smarter or more faithful than those first century Jews whose expectations were misdirected. If anything, I think it should simultaneously convict us of our own misdirected expectations and serve as a consolation for the same. If a great hero of the faith like John the Baptist could get snippy with Jesus when things didn’t seem to go according to his plan, then maybe we’re not so bad after all. On the other hand, we should be even more reticent to expect God to conform to our expectations, knowing how easy it is to fall into that trap.

Our Lord’s arrival both in Bethlehem and on the last day both convict and comfort. Our shepherd wields both rod and staff; he demands repentance and graciously offers the joy of redemption. We are called to things unseen, which can be frightening, but we are encouraged by Christ’s promise to be with us always. We are called to repentance, but even in penitence there is joy. Even in what seems the longest darkness, you can see the light begin to dawn.

Ultimately, Advent is about deferred expectations- the hope of something we don’t fully understand at a time which we do not choose. It is about this reality of both penitence and joyful expectation. Just like John might have expected political salvation in his own lifetime rather than spiritual salvation delayed, so have the hopes of the Church often been misplaced. I’ve mentioned before in my sermons the great heresy of humanist progress that took hold of protestant theology in the nineteenth century: the idea that we were marching slowly but surely toward building the Kingdom of God here on earth ourselves, rather than waiting eagerly for Christ’s radical transformation of our existence at the end of time. That idea of human progress is still very much alive and well in some corners of the Church, but it is another example of assuming that our plans are coterminous with God’s. Just as insidious is the popular idea that a Christian will, in this life, be spared from trials and tribulations if only his faith is strong enough. This outlook is just as full of pride as is faith in human progress, and just as much divorced from a healthy suspension of our demands in light of God’s plan.

Advent is at least in part about this process of setting aside our own expectations of how God ought to operate and subjugating those expectations to the promise of Christ’s reign as it is now and as it will be in the age to come. It is about waiting for those four last things I mentioned in this month’s newsletter article—death, judgment, heaven and hell—knowing that for those who are faithful, God’s plan in God’s time will be more glorious than anything we could possibly expect.

So, when we ask, along with John the Baptist, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” we may be sure that the answer is “yes” even if our doubt militates against our reasons to believe. Our doubt is natural, but it will be answered to our satisfaction and, indeed, be more satisfying than we, in our impatience, can foresee.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 2 Evensong 2019

+ May the words my mouth and the meditation of my heart be alway acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

It is a fortunate quirk of the lessons appointed for this evening that the two canticles from St. Luke’s Gospel–invariably a part of Evensong throughout the year–flank, as it were, the story of the nativity of St. John the Baptist from the same Gospel. It is a fluke of our lectionary, but it mirrors nicely the very intentional order imposed on the narrative by St. Luke himself.

The annunciation of the Baptist’s birth to Zechariah is followed by the contrasting Annunciation of the Savior’s birth to the Blessed Virgin and our Lady’s “Magnificat,” her song of praise, in response to the same. Then follows John’s presentation in the Temple (tonight’s New Testament lesson) and afterward–and again in contrast to it–Our Lord’s own presentation and Simeon’s joyful response to the same in the words of the “Nunc Dimittis.”

We see in this ordering not just a product of your priest’s pedantry but the progression of the promise which Advent holds before us. Struck dumb, Zechariah cannot respond to the Angel’s message; the time is not yet full. Our Lady can respond, and she proclaims the promise of a temporal reördering for the children of Abrhaham, a reversal of worldly fortune for a socially and economically and religiously oppressed people. Then Zechariah, his lips finally loosed, proclaims an even greater boon for the children of Israel: “The Lord God… hath visited and redeemed his people.” Finally, Simeon, whom we are told had been “waiting for the consolation of Israel,” goes even further when he encounters the Christ Child. He is now prepared to conclude his earthly pilgrimage because he has seen salvation dawn not only for Israel, but “before the face of all people, to be a light to lighten [even] the Gentiles.”

Thus we see a progression both from temporal to eternal concerns and from a tribal to a universal scope across the first two chapters of Luke and across tonight’s liturgy. But, as the medievals were smart enough to understand even if we modern people seem to have lost the ability, there is a surplus of meaning in holy scripture, and I believe there is also a spiritual and mystagogical reality inherent in this progression.

This progression from worldly concerns to eternal concerns, and from a provincial worldview to a universal worldview, is the trajectory of both the season of Advent and of the Christian spiritual life. In terms of the former, we are invited during this season to look ever forward, not just to Christ’s nativity in Bethlehem, but to Christ’s return at the end of time. We are asked to accept as a gift the fact that the Christ Child can be born again in our hearts, but even more importantly that the Son of Man can and will establish his eternal Kingdom for all people.

In terms of our spiritual progress, what we call sanctification in the West and what the Eastern Fathers of the church termed theosis (literally “making divine”) proceeds, I think, along the same trajectory. We may begin by believing (whether explicitly or implicitly) that God is mainly the fellow who gives goodies to us and to our families and close friends, but that view cannot hold if we are to grow in faith, nor will that view weather much experience with life on life’s terms. Rather, we must move from these concerns to a recognition that God’s promise is an answer to eternal concerns- life after death, yes, but also meaning and purpose in this life which transcends the concerns of health and wealth and security and touches upon the existential question: Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is the meaning of life? The answer necessarily turns us outward, to focus on the welfare of those outside ourselves and those whom we consider ours to embrace the whole human family as coheirs of the promise of the kingdom which is coming. It reminds us that whatever changes and chances we may experience in this life, the God who is sovereign will establish a reign of peace and justice for us and for all who call upon him.

This is the reality which the season of Advent calls us to consider. I don’t need to rehearse again my perennial hand-wringing dirge about Christmas creep, what Dean McGowan of Yale Divinity in an essay published last week bemoaned as the reality of Christians seeking to observe Advent finding themselves in occupied territory. It will suffice, I hope, to say that this season of penitential expectation calls us each year not only to consider how we might prepare to greet Christ’s first Advent in the Incarnation, but also his second Advent, his return on which day he promises to set all things to rights and to show grace and mercy to the one who, through turning (even at the last) from sin to the righteousness that comes only from faith, may greet his appearing. This is the season in which we take as our refrain that old prayer with which I now conclude:

Purify our consciences, O God, by the daily visitation, that our Lord Jesus Christ, when he cometh, may find a mansion made ready even for himself, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 1 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

How far from reality those words still seem. I sometimes joke about how out-of-date my pop culture references might seem to today’s young people even though I’m still pretty young. More shocking, though, is how people just a few years younger than me can’t really claim to remember a time when our nation has not been at war.

So how does the vision of the prophet become a reality? I’ve said from this pulpit that we don’t have the luxury of saying that we can just wait until God comes and fixes everything, but that is, sadly, the stance of many Christian sects. We heard that strange reading from Matthew’s Gospel a few minutes ago, in which some are taken and some are left. Several Christians believe that Jesus was speaking of something called “the rapture”, wherein the righteous are spared the calamities of the end-times and the wicked are left behind. This belief was invented by some fundamentalists doing some very bad biblical interpretation during in the nineteenth century. We can have that conversation at some point but it would take longer than you’d want to stay in your pews. Suffice it to say, that in this morning’s Gospel reading, the one’s taken away are Christians who would be persecuted under the Roman Empire and other anti-Christian powers (as they still are in some parts of the world), rather than being whisked away to heaven to avoid the final judgment. The idea of a “rapture” as the fundamentalists would call it (like you might read about in the Left Behind books) is, as far as I’m concerned – and in this I agree with the vast majority of serious biblical scholars – way off the mark.

So, with regard to the difficulties which beset our nation and our world, we’re not off the hook. We don’t get to just wait until Jesus comes back and raptures us up and lets the sinners hash it out. We are called to be a people of peace here and now. We’re called to help the usher in the reality of the Kingdom so beautifully envisioned by Isaiah.

What I can say to you is that peacemaking begins at home. There are plenty of swords and spears which need to be re-purposed in our homes and in our community for the sake of the kingdom. None of us has much he or she can do with regard to international affairs beyond the ballot box and making a few charitable or political contributions. Nonetheless, we’ve got plenty we can do here. We can redirect the energy we spend hating those with whom we disagree to loving them in tangible ways. We can beat the sword of malicious gossip into the plowshare of raising awareness with regard to the needs in our community. We can beat the spear of domestic strife into the pruning hook of self-sacrificing, unconditional filial love. We can take the money we spend for creature comforts and spend it on supporting those who don’t have enough for a meal or a winter coat.

Where can you redirect your own bellicose energies to serve as a peacemaker? I can only speak for myself, and so I shall, I hope not uncomfortably confessionally. I spend too much energy being angry with people I think are petulant and meddlesome when I could be using that energy to love them. I spend time and energy grousing and being depressed about things I don’t like that I could use to make those same things better. I discount people I too quickly put into categories that I can easily dismiss, when I could try to actually approach each individual with whom I come into contact as a unique child of God and find some common ground with him or her. Those are my misplaced priorities. Those are my sins. But I think each of us has some place in our lives where we can allow God to transform war-making into peacemaking. All of us have swords and spears in our souls which can be beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks if only we let God work in us.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.